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Control issues: Outdoor fires can become a big problem when it's windy or they're left unattended

Spring cleaning means more outdoor fires as residents begin ridding their yards of winter's leftovers. Two to three weeks after the first few days of spring weather is when fire departments get most of their calls for grass and brush fires, said Fire Investigator Bob Harbaugh of the Concord Township Fire Department and firefighters from other township fire departments. Outdoor fires can burn out of control when they are not constantly supervised or it's too windy to safely burn, Harbaugh said.

Posted on April 21, 2008 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on April 21, 2008 at 9:32 a.m.

Spring cleaning means more outdoor fires as residents begin ridding their yards of winter's leftovers.

Two to three weeks after the first few days of spring weather is when fire departments get most of their calls for grass and brush fires, said Fire Investigator Bob Harbaugh of the Concord Township Fire Department and firefighters from other township fire departments.

Outdoor fires can burn out of control when they are not constantly supervised or it's too windy to safely burn, Harbaugh said.

In fact, eight firefighters from Osolo Township Fire Department responded to a large wood fire off C.R. 9 around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, leaving only Osolo Fire Chief Jerry Miller at the station for other calls, Miller said.

"It might be a nice day, but it's awful, awful windy," Miller said. "People just aren't thinking."

Of course, the department can always call for mutual aid, Miller said, but those fires "could be avoidable if people used common sense."

While people may be eager to get their yards cleaned up, Miller said, the Osolo Township Fire Department tries to tell residents not to burn if they don't have to. The Baugo Township Fire Department also prefers residents to use other ways of disposing of leaves and brush, such as composting and recycling, Graves said.

"It's quite an issue at the moment," Baugo Fire Chief Tim Graves said. Responding to brush fires takes away from members of the public who might need ambulance or fire service, Graves said.

Assistant Chief Mike Graham of the Cleveland Township Fire Department said his department has received several calls for outdoor fires, and if they're out on these fires, it may be a longer response time for other emergencies.

Nevertheless, township firefighters anticipate more calls for out-of-control outdoor fires in the coming weeks as weather gets nicer.

"When there are gusty winds, people will walk away just for a minute and their whole yard is involved," Graham said. These fires can spread quickly to structures or under cars, Miller said. Heavy smoke rolling across the road has been thick enough to cause accidents, Miller said.

But smoke may carry more subtle health dangers, as well.

Residents also call the fire department with complaints of heavy smoke, especially as the population in the townships increases, Harbaugh said. If heavy smoke is traveling to neighbors' yards, he said, have some respect and burn another day.

And there are health risks involved with outdoor fires, said John Hulewicz, environmental health supervisor at the Elkhart County Health Department. According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, for every 5 pounds of leaves burned, 1 pound of air pollution is released.

"Some parents say they don't want their kids exposed to cigarette smoke, but they'll let them near the fire burning leaves in their back yard," Hulewicz said. "It does have a detrimental health effect."

And the majority of these leaf-burning and trash-burning fires are illegal, Hulewicz said.

"Never can you conduct open burning," he said, and the only thing Indiana residents are allowed to burn according to state statute is wood and wood byproducts. All fires must be contained in a noncombustible container that is well ventilated, Hulewicz said.

Residents should consider alternatives to burning, Hulewicz said, such as taking items to the landfill or composting certain materials, like leaves.

Firefighters from Concord, Baugo, Osolo and Cleveland township fire departments make these recommendations for residents wanting to burn leaves outside the city limits:

* If possible, don't burn -- compost yard waste, take trash to the landfill or recycle.

* Check the weather before burning -- the fire is more likely to spread out of control with winds exceeding 10 mph.

* Soak the surrounding area with water, making it harder for the fire to spread.

* Start the burning on the side of the fire opposite of the direction the wind is coming from -- if the burning starts on the side hit first by the wind, it will burn too fast.

* Start out small -- see how the fire is burning; if it is going well, more can be added.

* Grass and other outdoor debris can burn for days, so make sure fire is always supervised.

* If embers get away from the fire, use a sturdy rake or shovel to brush them out before they ignite something else.

* Hose down the burning area to put fire out and make sure it stays out.

* If the fire is getting out of control, call the fire department immediately -- don't wait for more property or people to be at risk.

Within city limits, an ordinance prohibits any debris burning, and the fire department can issue tickets resulting in fines from $25 to $250, said Elkhart Fire Inspector Robert Smith.




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